Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hate Books Always On The Fringe

Theories on Islamic books you wouldn't read about
Irfan Yusuf
Thursday, 21 July 2005

I have a close friend who attended a Canberra Anglican school for 6 years. She is spiritually ecumenical with a keen interest in Hindu and Christian mysticism. Over the years, I have given her a number of spiritual books. Her favourite is a collection of Rumi poems entitled “Hidden Music”.

I have another close friend working medical research. She also has a superb sense of humour. I recently gave her 2 books on tib an-nabawi (classical medicine as taught by Prophet Muhammad) and a DVD of three American Muslim comics entitled “Allah made me funny!”.

Before writing this piece, I spoke to the owner of the Andalus Islamic Bookstore in Sydney (from where I purchased some of these items). I asked him what was his biggest seller. “We just can’t order enough of those books on baby names”, he said.

The biggest selling book from one of the most popular Australian Islamic bookstores is one used by parents to choose a name for their new-born child. A powerful metaphor for a religious community at the heart of mainstream Australia, and a far cry from some books sold at fringe salafist bookshops which seem to encourage young people to take their own lives and those of others.

Andalus also supplies the needs of members of Canberra’s educated and progressive Muslim community. The Canberra Islamic Centre hopes to establish Australia’s largest Islamic library. Already, it has collected an impressive array of rare books and manuscripts in a number of languages. It also sells books as part of its fundraising activities. Many of these books are sourced from the website.

Tabloid journalists and high rating Sydney morning shock jocks (the ones in Canberra are lucky to reach double figure ratings) may harp on about hate-filled books. A few days back I spent 45 minutes listening to a reporter from Channel 7’s Today Tonight show trying to convince me to name names of salafist book distributors. The way she was speaking, it seemed clear to me that she had never visited a single Muslim bookshop in Sydney.

The reality among mainstream Muslim Australians is quite contrary to sensationalist reports. No doubt there are bookstores selling these materials. But they are a small minority. And they have plenty of hate-filled stock as the more popular titles sell out much more quickly. It’s obvious books preaching fanaticism are just not selling.

Unlike other English-speaking countries (such as the United States, Canada and UK), Australia does not have a large Islamic publishing industry. When Fairfax journalist Nadia Jamal wanted to publish her account of growing up Muslim in Australia, she had little choice but to approach a mainstream Australian publisher.

Indeed, some of the best books on Islamic religion and culture only sell at mainstream bookstores. The popular US Muslim writer Yahya Emerick’s book entitled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam is available at Belconnen Dymocks, as are books by New York Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Mainstream bookstores also sell popular titles on Islam by respected non-Muslim authors such as Karen Armstrong and John Esposito.

On the other hand, there are also books which talk about war and jihad. The Daily Telegraph recently made an issue of one bookshop in the western Sydney suburb of Auburn selling a book entitled “The Quranic Concept of War”. What the Telegraph didn’t report was that the book was a treatise on the historical rules of war under classical Islamic jurisprudence, not a modern terror manual. Further, the bookshop was managed by a small harmless sufi organisation, most of whose books are in Turkish.

Books about jihad are not necessarily offensive. Some journalists continue to harbour the misapprehension that jihad is the Islamic equivalent for medieval Christian “holy war”. But for mainstream Muslims, jihad typically refers to a spiritual struggle against one’s evil inclinations. In this respect, most sufi books are little more than manuals on spiritual jihad.

With followers of fringe ideological off-shoots of Islam responsible for most recent terrorist acts (including the recent spate in London and Baghdad), authorities are understandably concerned about literature being sold in religious bookshops. But this is no reason to believe that 400,000 Muslim Australians are busy reading terror manuals and planning suicide bombing attacks. Security and law enforcement agencies need to be alert. But alarmist sentiments should be left to immature morning shock jocks desperate for ratings.

(The author is a Sydney industrial lawyer who has advised peak Muslim organisations and independent schools. This article was published in the Canberra Times)